Band of Brothers

two American soldiers in World War II

For Memorial Day weekend… some sketchy family history — especially for the cousins I’m connected to on Facebook, including grandchildren of the soldier on the right.

These two very handsome guys in uniform are my dad, Bob, on the left, and his brother, Lester. I think it was taken in 1943 or ’44. My dad had been in training in Kansas through the last half of 1942. At the time of his discharge in 1945, he was part of the 15th Army Air Force, which had been based mostly in Italy, according to online records. For some reason, I always thought he was stationed in England, since he talked about visiting Scotland, where his mother was born, and never talked about being in Italy. But we never did talk about the war much. Maybe that’s what this blog post is really about — talking to your parents, asking questions about their lives — or being prepared to enjoy little mysteries when you go through their boxes of memories years later.

unidentified building with clock and what may be agricultural apparatus in front Alas, I also never thought to ask my father or uncle how they came to get together overseas, or exactly where these pictures were taken. Or maybe I did and just forgot the answers. I suspect the snapshot was sent home with others, including the artistic-looking faded sepia one of a building with a clock-window and weathervane. It is just identified as “a church” in a note on the back, and as the scene of my dad’s picture with “Rocky” — not an inconceivable nickname for uncle Lester, although not one I remember hearing. I wonder if his grandchildren and great-grandchildren ever hear of him being called that.

I don’t know what Lester’s military unit or rank was. Dad’s stripes had to do with working in an Army Air Force photo unit. I imagine the church photo is a snapshot he took. (The note on the back also says “I like this. And you?”)

Dad died of lung cancer 30 years ago last month and Lester passed away eight or nine years later. My father never talked much about his military service, but he still loved to take pictures — although he had no luck finding a photography job in his hometown after the war. Instead, he went back to the nightclub, hotel and restaurant work he had been doing in civilian life.

(His bar-tending experience is probably what “qualified” him for the photo lab training — mixing liquids, handling inventory, record-keeping and cash transactions, getting along with people under pressure. Making them laugh may not have been part of the military job-description, but I bet it helped. It kept him going in peacetime, too… including his college years, which started at age 43 — pretty unusual back then!)

Among other pix he left behind is one showing him in a flight jacket standing on the wing of an airplane, with a huge piece of camera equipment on his shoulder, maybe a camera used to take aerial mapping photos. And then there’s the humorous photo-shoot of him demonstrating <a href="; title="2003 blog post about dad's photo feature about incorrect saluting” target=”_blank”>how not to salute, which was published in the Kansas airbase magazine, Salvo, and which I’ve written about before.

Bob and Lester’s older brother, Norman, stayed home to take care of their mother — and became the first in the family to graduate from college and law school. I think their youngest brother, “K” (Clarence), was in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. Luckily, they all came home safely to Western Massachusetts, married and raised families. By the way, in case the youngest brother’s son or grandchildren see this, I understand his nickname was inspired by the tag-along kid-brother in the “Moon Mullins” newspaper comic strip, who was named “K.O.”

(Along with the Salvo reference, “Moon Mullins” helps me meet my old-newspaper-guy goal of having occasional references to newspapers and magazines in this blog, so that I don’t have to change its name.)

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Springtime Renewal


Perfect timing:

I just noticed that I had not reinstalled the WordPress app on my phone after a system crash last month, that I hadn’t added a post to this blog in two months, and that the sun was going down.

If you are seeing this, everything is working again, including the little share button that let me cross post this to Facebook and Twitter. Happy springtime!

Note: This Android WordPress app really does work quite nicely, even with the speech to text feature of the phone, which only required about 5 edits to fix all the typos… Mostly things like capitalizing the word Sun and misspelled in one of the two words in the headline, which I should have caught immediately.

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Klondike weather? Timely 100-year-old poetry


With the thermometer hitting record single digits here in Southwest Virginia, the weatherman threatening negative double-digits overnight, and a Facebook conversation getting me thinking of Robert W. Service, I went looking for my old LP  of Debby McClatchy singing a couple of his poems set to banjo tunes. (It’s “Lady Luck,” out of print, but she will sell you a copy at her website.)

Haven’t found a YouTube clip of her performing the poem, but stumbled on these instead. Light a fire and enjoy…

Johnny Cash – Cremation of Sam McGee:

And if that’s not enough irony for you, here’s a version by Hank (ahem) Snow..

And a dramatized reading, with plenty of Klondike atmosphere:

Want to read along? Here’s the text:


I also found a Project Gutenberg copy of the first tattered leather-bound 1909 collection of Robert Service poems I ever owned,
Ballads of a Cheechako.”.

It does not have Sam McGee, but it does have the “Ballad of Blasphemous Bill,” almost a sequel, which I recommend highly.

   I took a contract to bury the body of blasphemous Bill MacKie,
     Whenever, wherever or whatsoever the manner of death he die—
     Whether he die in the light o’ day or under the peak-faced moon;
     In cabin or dance-hall, camp or dive, mucklucks or patent shoon;
     On velvet tundra or virgin peak, by glacier, drift or draw;
     In muskeg hollow or canyon gloom, by avalanche, fang or claw;
     By battle, murder or sudden wealth, by pestilence, hooch or lead—
     I swore on the Book I would follow and look till I found my tombless dead.

The rest of Blasphemous Bill (text)

And … Hank Snow reciting The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill

Posted in Music, poetry, storytelling, weather, winter, youtube

February and Facebook

A confession: I’ve developed a Facebook habit and, with three other more-or-less active blogs, have neglected this one for months.

Facebook is especially good for sharing things and starting conversations with far-off family, friends, neighbors, or interest groups. For me, that includes old-time music, clawhammer banjo or ukulele enthusiasts, photographers, and patrons or fans of particular musicians, bands, venues or events.

If Facebook were a university, “Colorful sunset pix” and “Comparative winter weather” also would be top majors, sometimes passing “cats” and “babies.”

I’ve indulged in sunsets before, but here are selections from my sequential contribution to the winter genre:

After two snow-free winter months, we finally had an 8-10 inch storm on Feb.16, so I shot driveway pictures at two-hour intervals.

It was more fun than shoveling.



2:00 and 4:00

secondoffoursnowy driveway



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Being thankful for a Thanksgiving week cold that had me at home around sunset on Tuesday,  even if I did miss a Radford Pizza House jam session because of it…


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Why buy a house on top of a hill?


This is where I do my kind of cloud computing.

I would probably get more writing done if I lived at the bottom of the hill, or put the computer in a room without a window.

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Back to blogging

It has been nine years since I updated my “About Weblogs” backgrounder page, the first draft of which was a page on a now-defunct server for a class at Emerson College in 2000.

The blogging server where I maintained that page from 2002 to 2009 went out of business, so I moved the page to my frozen-in-time “oldblog” folder.

But blogging itself has not been frozen, and early blogger Dave Winer has suggested I update my definition, just as he did recently. Here’s Dave’s “I know what a blog is,” expanding on his “unedited voice of a person” definition.

Winer’s software “Manila” and “Radio Userland” were two of the early blog-publishing systems I used, along with Trellix and Blogger, after writing blog-style Web pages in plain HTML. To me, these “edit in your browser” programs, which automated the last-page-in date-stamped diary format, were the real definition of blogging a dozen years ago. Now, the same systems can be used to create other kinds of websites, which was the point of this WordPress “Not a Blog” demo I did for students a few years ago.

My old-time-radio friend Jimbo uses Blogger for sites that go far beyond traditional “blog posts” to become encyclopedic resources of a very special kind, like his “Vic & Sade” opus at

So if the software no longer defines “blogging,” what does?

Here’s what my AP Stylebook says:


Notice that it doesn’t mention whether a blog has one voice, many voices, or if it can be the collaborative/communal voice of writers and editors working together. The Stylebook seems mostly focused on the length (“short”) of published items and a “usually (but not always)” reverse-chronological diary-style entries. The “but not always” would have to be added to “short” too, in order to include the work of admitted bloggers like NYU professor Jay Rosen’s and some of my longer items, including this one — or my last exploration of a 1940s Superman adventure.

This new interest in “what is a blog?” arose after The New York Times announced that it is cutting back on the publications it referred to as blogs, as distinct from the items it calls “news” or “opinion columns.” The lines between are probably a blur to folks who only read the Times online.

I don’t see a clear “About Times Blogs” explanation of how edited or collaborative they were, although what the Times has been calling blogs have been in latest-item-on-top order, had associated RSS and Twitter feeds, and apparently had a less formal tone than stories or columns intended for the print edition of the newspaper. Was “this is not going to be in print” the main Times definition of “blog”? Maybe.

You can find what’s left of the Times blogs at or

For many readers, seeing a blog-like page format may imply that the named author has total control of the words and opinions on that page. At the same time, seeing a gothic “The New York Times” logo on the page (or a “” in the address) may imply that the contents were subject to some level of editing. Actually, readers would be well-served by an “about” page that explained all the things “editing” can mean today — from help defining an assignment to revision issues of focus, length, consistent style (The Times has its own Stylebook), fact-checking, and copy editing for grammar and spelling.

Even the most personal of op-edit opinion columns get some editing. You can be pretty sure a page one story has had many more levels. The Public Editor column helps readers sort out those oversight issues from time to time, but even there you will find both “columns” and “blog posts.”:

The difference? Her “about” panel is about frequency, not copy editing:

“Margaret Sullivan is the fifth public editor appointed by The New York Times. She writes about the Times and its journalism in a frequent blog – the Public Editor’s Journal — and in a twice-monthly print column in the Sunday Review section…”

For my own general definition, I’ll stick with being mushy and reporting the shifting usage of the word “blog.” Some sites that call themselves blogs appear to have more than one author, or at least editing help. Sometimes I wish I did. For my own blogs, I try to explain what I’m doing on a prominently linked “about” page.

Some blogs also may have internal rules about never changing an old post. I don’t have that rule here or at my book-in-progress blog about old-time radio’s dramatic portrayals of journalists, I revise; my About page says so. If I see a misspelling or broken link on something weeks old, I’ll fix it. If I make substantial changes — add more links or pictures or change my mind about something — I’ll add a note of some kind.

[Note: I rarely use the iPad WordPress app that I used to post the first draft of this item. I may come back to it to improve the formatting with a full-featured editor.]

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Have I been talking too much in class?

Jeanine Basinger’s five-week “Marriage in the Movies” online class at has wrapped up, and I had a great time… but I’m afraid I went overboard posting notes and links in the discussion forums. I’m calling it quits at 99 contributions.

The professor’s lectures were mostly about the ten assigned films and her history of Hollywood movies that are primarily “about marriage” — which she differentiates from films that are about married people doing other things, like solving “Thin Man” mysteries.

The students, however, were free to raise other topics in the discussion forums — and did, from “favorite movies” to “favorite quotes from movies” lists. Some folks were having so much fun that by the end they were discussing “forum” software and sites that would let them continue the conversation after the end of the class.

I had no special expertise on this category of films — or on the general subject of marriage — but I shared what I could about online film-research resources. I managed to avoid saying too much about old-time radio “replays” of movie plots, which I write about elsewhere,  or about ukuleles, folk, blues, Irish and Appalachian music,  and other topics near and dear to me. (One of the films we watched, The Marrying Kind, does have a heartbreaking scene involving Judy Holliday playing a ukulele, but saying more than that about it would be a plot “spoiler.”)

When the course was over, I went back to see just how much I had written for a course whose students are told to expect a work effort of four to six hours a week. That’s Coursera’s generic time estimate, and I think some students spent much more time than they expected.

For some class members — especially those outside the U.S. — just tracking down the assigned films was a challenge, and a topic for discussion. As a volunteer “community teaching assistant,” I tried to help with that, although assistants based in Europe and Asia might know more about availability of films in their regions.

So how much did I write? Almost as much as I would in a full-semester graduate seminar — minus the exhaustive “lit review” and minus the coherence of building a thesis and drawing conclusions in traditional “term paper” format. My attention deficit disorder had fun here!

Coursera does let you go back and look at all your own contributions to a discussion, so here are mine, exported as a PDF file (since no one else’s comments are included, I assume I’m within my “copyright” rights here: 6814 Marriage and the Movies_ A History _ Coursera

My Macintosh says that PDF file would be 41 pages long if printed! My notes might not always be understandable, removed from the original discussion context, but most stand on their own, and the links to other film resources should still work — at least they do in my copy when opened in a PDF viewer. I’m posting it here so that I can get at those links from other computers, and in case its of interest to a couple of non-Coursera film fans I know.

Posted in 2014, coursera, Education, film, media studies, MOOCs, movies, wesleyan

Another film course coming up… Marriage and the Movies

This should be fun. I’m enrolled in Wesleyan University’s latest Coursera “Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), a film history course taught by the head of the film studies program at my alma mater.

Listed below are the movies we’ll be watching and discussing in “Marriage & the Movies,” taught by Jeanine Basinger, starting April 21 and running for five weeks — two films a week, plus her online lectures, student discussion forums and quizzes.

This blog post is also an experiment to see if I can copy the HTML code of a list I made in a Coursera discussion forum and paste it into my blog for quick reference without logging into the Coursera system.

I don’t know whether Coursera’s international students will get much use from‘s service, but in a small college town in southwest Virginia (with a bigger university a half hour away and a bigger city an hour north), I had great luck using it for “Language of Hollywood” last fall. So I wrote this to recommend the service to classmates, along with the Internet Movie Database, which has an entry for each film.

Worldcat is not only a catalog of books and films, but a zip-code-based pointer to local libraries that have the material. Last semester, I used it to locate sources within driving-time and to frame interlibrary loan requests for others. I’ve also used it in research for my “Newspaper Heroes on the Air” old-time radio journalism-nostalgia project.

In addition to providing library listings, Worldcat has background information — cast list, a short abstract, awards, notes, DVD special features, source (related novel, its author etc.) and more.

I noticed last time that at some institutions films might be listed under the titles of a “bundled” box set or series collection, which can be an extra search trick. For examples, see Brief Encounters, Adam’s Rib and Heartburn below.

Of course some students may rely on Netflix, Amazon, Warner Archive and other sources, but I suspect a lot of them (like me) are on a budget — so libraries and Web searches could be our best friends. I’m trying to limit my media-purchasing to my main research obsession — films and radio shows that have journalist characters. Alas, only one of these (as far as I know) falls into that category.

Here are links that worked for me for our 10 —  I’ve put links on the titles themselves and worldcat links on the next line. At two films a week starting April 21, this whole set should make for a cinema-rich month of May! Given the subject matter, perhaps I should either get a date, invite over some married friends, or both…

1: WILD ORCHIDS (Franklin, 1929)

2: MADE FOR EACH OTHER (Cromwell, 1939)

3: THE MARRYING KIND (Cukor, 1952)

4: ADAM’S RIB (Cukor, 1949)
also in……

5: BRIEF ENCOUNTER (Lean, 1945)

6: VIVACIOUS LADY (Stevens, 1938)

7: SUSPICION (Hitchcock, 1941)

8: SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (Cromwell, 1944)

9: HEARTBURN (Nichols, 1986)
(Combined with “The Hours”)

10: THE WAR OF THE ROSES (DeVito, 1989)

Posted in 2014, Education, film, Internet, MOOCs, movies, popular culture, wesleyan

Making MOOC music in a second mode

My exploration of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continues with two music courses offered by the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I’ve completed a film history class and a communication science class, but slipped out the side door of two other free courses, including a University of Edinburgh one I wrote about a few months ago.

I jumped into my first Berklee class, jazz improvisation with Gary Burton back in February, and decided it was a bit over my musical head — as well as competing for my time with the communication science class I wrote about here last time. I  watched Gary’s lectures and listened to the music, but didn’t attempt  the assignments — which were to be recorded and uploaded for listening and critique by other students.

In a moment of musical hubris, I had felt the level description of “intermediate” might describe me — but as soon as the class started it was obvious that some accordion lessons when J.F.K. was alive, a few months of guitar lessons (Johnson administration), and a lot of off-and-on noodling since then does not add up to “intermediate” at Berklee.  Or, as a friend of mine once said, “Can you play that thing, or do you just ‘know some tunes’?”

Most of my tune-learning over the years has been in American and Irish folk music, sea chanteys, some blues, and a few rock ‘n’ roll or pop standards… on the guitar, mandolin, mandola, five string banjo, ukulele and banjo ukulele. I do read music, but I’ve never had a need for the Gm7(b5) chord and accompanying modal scale, which started Gary’s first assignment.

While I like many kinds of music, I’ll admit the Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian and Locrian mode names are all Greek to me, even when they describe music I’ve been playing for years. (Mostly “Ionian,” I guess.)  I think a couple of them describe music I’ve never attempted — including the first scale in that improv class.

Luckily, I noticed on the schedule that Berklee was also offering a “Developing Your Musicianship” class that, no joke, started April 1. So I signed up, and I have just completed the first week’s work. The teacher is jazz pianist George W. Russell Jr., and he is excellent — as are his Berklee students whose online performance rounded out the week’s 10 short video “lectures,”  about 40 minutes altogether. George’s description of the first week made it sound challenging, but within my skills:

In this first lesson, we are going to explore some basic musical terms. What is harmony? What is ear training? What is an interval? From there, we are going to look at the major scale and how it is constructed. We are then going to explore two intervals: the major 2nd and the major 3rd. It is very important that you develop your ear and your ability to recognize intervals. And, last but not least, we are going to explore the tonal center, or the key a song is in.

The discussion forums — as has been true with the earlier classes I’ve taken on Coursera — are full of fascinating people from all over the world. The “introductions” forum already has more than 400 contributions. The last four were from students in Zagreb, Croatia; Madrid, Spain; Peterborough, Ontario; and the Boston area. I’ve also noticed posts from Dublin, Stockholm, Tokyo, Brussels, Athens, Delhi and San Antonio. This should be fun.

This week’s homework included spending some time on YouTube looking for music in the key of C… and I enjoyed it so much that I submitted more than the three assigned examples. I decided not to include any ukulele tunes — although I’ve already been part of a course discussion forum with a couple of other students who are using ukes instead of keyboards to work through the lessons. (My only keyboard is a virtual one on my iPad screen, but it works.)

Here, I’ll share the C-tunes I found with you, too, copying and pasting from my Coursera submission:

This was a fun assignment, and I hope it wasn’t cheating to search (YouTube) for the phrases “key of c” and “played in c” to make the search more productive. But I did start with songs that I know are often played in that key. I went beyond the assigned three.

“Keep on the Sunny Side of Life” by Mother Maybelle & The Carter Sisters

“Two little fishes” by Sister Rosetta Tharp

“Creole Belle” and “Louis Collins” (from Mississippi John Hurt) played and taught by Stefan Grossman

“Melody in C” by Frederic Mesnier

“The Christmas Song” by Mel Torme, sung by Nat King Cole (in D) … And a guitar arrangement in C:

I am curious how many of you (like me) searched YouTube for “the key of C” and found Victor Borge’s comedic presentation of Mozart’s “Bagatele in the key of C”

it does not fit the requirements for this assignment, but I am glad I found it. I had not heard him in years and he is a wonderful entertainer, although he does not actually play the piano in this clip!

I mentioned this general technique of finding things in a course discussion forum, and while I was writing that note I confirmed my suspicion that there is even a Wikipedia page for “C major” that includes lists of classical compositions and pop songs written in that key. So much for difficult homework, unless I completely misunderstood the assignment! If I did, someone will tell me. It’s all learning!

I do hope the classmate or classmates who review that assignment enjoy the Borge item… but that will be next week when we do “evaluations.” I’m also looking forward to another Coursera film course starting in a couple of weeks — once again, from my graduate alma mater, Wesleyan University: Marriage and the Movies.

Posted in 2014, Education, MOOCs, Music